Stories From Where We Were to How We Got Here
BY MINDY FARABEE
In a way, LA ladies, the news for us is actually pretty good. Last Thursday, the city controller’s office released a snazzy infographic illustrating the state of women in the city workforce. Turns out, we Angelenas earn 83 cents for every dollar a man makes. Nationwide, that statistic has been stuck hovering around 77 cents for going on seven years now.
Back in 1977, the gender gap paid women a little less than 59 cents on the male dollar earned, just one of the irksome stats fueling the next wave of American feminism. Then again, back in ’77, carpool lanes were a new fangled idea. Prop 13 was but a gleam in taxpayers’ eyes. The Mediterranean fruit fly had just arrived. And female artists in LA were staging a coup on the art world.
Among the insurgents: six women who collectively called themselves The Waitresses —the troupe founded by then-art students Anne Gauldin and Jerri Allyn who bonded over shared experiences waitressing their way through grad school — and who for over nearly a decade put out a body of work that helped shape the LA performance art scene.
A fluid ensemble of female artists — originally comprised of Denise Yarfitz Pierre, Jamie Wildman-Webber, Patti Nicklaus and Leslie Belt along with Allyn and Gauldin —the Waitresses staged guerrilla fashion shows in LA eateries, dressed up as dancing bananas in art galleries, brought female super-heroes to labor conferences, harmonized on their own Pacifica radio show, talked about sexual harassment in an NBC news special, took their act to universities, theater festivals and the streets of Pasadena and even performed overseas.
Like many young artists in 1975, Gauldin, born and reared in Whittier, already had a plane ticket to New York when she saw a flyer about a new feminist art project at a local bookstore. Meanwhile, Allyn, a Quaker from Pennsylvania studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, climbed aboard a carload of young women heading south to check out this radical new art program their professors were talking about. They all converged on and in the Woman’s Building, a three story downtown LA performance and gallery-space-slash-fully-accredited-art-school-slash-consciousness-raising-tool that for nearly 20 years also functioned as a community epicenter and symbol for an era.
The Woman’s Building opened in 1973, after artists Judy Chicago and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and art historian Arlene Raven all decamped from CalArts, determined to create an arena where female artists could work on their own terms. Their project touched nerves at its outset.
“There’s a story about how they were scared the floor would crash at the opening,” said historian Michelle Moravec, who has written extensively on the feminist art movement. “Something like 5000 people showed up. It was crazy; the place was packed. The energy was buzzing. It was probably the most visible center of the feminist art movement.”
Cultural centers everywhere in the 1970s were shifting; case in point that an audacious scheme like the Woman’s Building would spring up 3000 miles from the recognized axis of the art world, part of its ambition fed by a very West Coast belief in fresh starts.
“In part, the lack of solidified art scene in LA made it almost more possible, that and the ongoing utopian strand in California history… Feminists came here to be something they couldn’t be where they were,” said Moravec. In reaction to the foment of the times, “the New York art scene formed alternative galleries that paralleled the [traditional] art world. LA’s Woman’s Building turned its back on the art world.”
The Waitresses first action, a seven-day series of public performances, panel discussions and workshops called Ready to Order?, was conceived of as a teachable moment for the average restaurant goer. They produced work that played on pop culture memes, with skits such as “Wonder Waitress,” in which Wildman-Webber overpowered an angry cook and a difficult customer. They played out personal fantasies, such as in the piece “You’re All Wet,” in which Gauldin, an erstwhile cocktail waitress, threw a tray of drinks one by one into the face of a sexist customer. In Coffee Cauldron, the women donned waitress uniforms and created a ritual that turned coffee pots into metaphorical vessels, honoring the notion of service as a higher calling. It was one of several pieces that mixed the historical imagery of serious art with a political edge.
“I always liked doing the Great Goddess Diana,” said Gauldin recently over some iced tea at a coffee shop near her Highland Park home. “Whenever I wore the costume, I always got really strange reactions from the men. They weren’t sure if they were supposed to find it sexy or if it was kind of offensive.”
Mildly bizarre is one thing it was. Modeled on the famous state of the goddess Diana at Ephesus, Gauldin’s outfit included casts made from the breasts of each of the women in the group. She and Yarfitz would stroll into a crowded dining room at meal time and erect a shrine to the goddess, as a way of making transparent the underlying expectations that casts the waitress as mother figure, and mother as unending, self-sacrificing font.
“How could you stand it?” their script read in part. “Sweat of reaching hands, open mouths, empty bellies — questioning, commanding, demanding — you must give everything to everyone at once, or be devoured! Friendly and smiling, giving menu, silverware, placemat, napkin, food, drink. White, wheat or rye? Eyes, ears, legs? Thousand, Roquefort, French?”
The Waitresses tackled themes of violence against women, pay equity and classism, the democratization of art and the economics of world hunger with a crackpot sense of humor. “We learned that five out of the six of us had been raped,” said Allyn in a phone interview. “So sexual harassment took on a very different hue. In some ways, it was too heavy. So we resorted to humor.”
It proved to be a popular approach. To date, their All-City Waitress Marching Band, which began with about 35 pots and pans wielding entrants (and one baton twirler) into Pasadena’s second annual Doo Dah Parade, has been reconstituted more than 10 times with a varying cast of characters, according to Allyn, including at LACMA in 2007, and most recently in league with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Such contemporary efforts circle back around to the moment when performance art wasn’t designed so much for the gallery crowd as concerned with public spaces and social change — a lineage felt through groups like the Guerrilla Girls and major seminal works like In Mourning and In Rage by the artist Suzanne Lacy, who ran the performance art program at the Woman’s Building and served as a significant influence on and mentor for The Waitresses.
“They were indicative of a whole series of groups — [from] the Feminist Art Workers through Sisters of Survival,” said Moravec. “Women artists [in the ‘70s] came to understand performance art as a perfect vehicle for what they wanted to do. In LA, the two worlds melded more than they did in New York. It was more feasible to maintain identity as an artist and simultaneously be involved in activist activities.” As a consequence, “the Woman’s Building became like a laboratory for performance art.”
This ran in sync with the larger scene characterized by experimentation and a freewheeling attitude germinated in LA by “a lot of tiny arts organizations run by artists,” said Sue Maberry, a very occasional Waitress and now director of library and instructional technology at Otis College, which currently holds the collective’s slide archive. “In the 70s, performance art really wasn’t theater. Maybe 10 people would attend a performance, and it wasn’t well documented. It was the experience of the moment.” The Waitresses—some of whom, including Gauldin, Allyn and Maberry went on to the Sisters of Survival — practiced a very immediate, determinedly public and at times intimate strain of performance art with both a playful openness and a specific agenda.
“Arlene [Raven] said, ‘raise consciousness, invite dialogue, and transform culture.’ We were all committed to that,” said Maberry.
“This is how things worked at the Building,” said Gauldin. “Things started out small, maybe you were just doing private things. And then you moved out and out and out.”